I don’t know how many of you are going to wake up at the crack of dawn this Monday to watch the Oscar awards ceremony, but I’m sure I won’t. For four solid reasons. First, as Johnny Carson said long ago, “It’s two hours of sparkling entertainment spread over four hours.” Second, I didn’t like the mediocrity that’s Slumdog Millionaire — and I’m sure it’ll take up at least a third of the ceremony’s stretch. Third, most of the show will be uploaded at the Associated Press channel on YouTube anyway. And last, I’m not sure Hugh Jackman can do justice to the pivotal role for the evening — that of the master of ceremonies.
I remember Oscar ceremonies by their hosts. For example, I remember that Titanic swept the awards the year Billy Crystal burst on to stage through the backscreen (purportedly waking up from a nightmare about the previous year’s ceremony). Or that Whoopi Goldberg walked in decked up as Queen Elizabeth (and said, “Some of you may know me as the Virgin Queen, but I can’t imagine who”) the year Roberto Benigni bounded over heads to receive the award for Life is Beautiful. Films will win and stars will scream, but these are the standout moments that will light up our memory.
That’s why I think it’s time to give out a statuette to the best host in the manner of a lifetime achievement Oscar. And my nominees for this award are...
Letterman only knocks once
Fans may quibble over who was the best compère, but no one seems to be in doubt about the worst. In 1995, David Letterman made the ceremony an extension of his TV show. No one understood why he went guttural every other moment with “Umaaa (Thurman)” and “Opraah (Winfrey)”. Some guests were visibly upset with the jokes cast at their expense. And the Academy didn’t call Letterman for any other show.
Johnny come early
One of the best contenders is from the pre-cable TV generation. Show host Johnny Carson was a respectable American Everyman with a edgy sense of humour that viewers old and young could enjoy. After age-old tradition, he took bold swipes at politicos: when US President Ronald Reagan pushed for a cut in art funding, Carson called it “Reagan’s strongest attack on the arts since he joined Warner Brothers”.
Flirty rotten scoundrel
Though he has overacted in several slapsticks, Steve Martin stands out for effectively wielding one of the sharpest weapons in a comedian’s arsenal: surprise. When he’s at his measured best, as at these tie-tux events that he has hosted twice, you can’t get him too soon. Savour this opener: “Hosting the Oscars is like making love to a beautiful woman. It’s something you only get to do when Billy Crystal is out of town.”
And the award goes to...
Billy Crystal! And it’s not just because he happened to be the regular host in the early 90s — years when the cable TV revolution was beginning to wipe all sleep from our unblinking eyes. Crystal wasn’t always funnier or edgier than others. Just that his comic timing in the middle of a deadpan drone was perfect. Watch the opening sequence of 2004, when he came back as host after a gap of three years, and you’ll know why.